ATLANTA — Soft drink giant Coca-Cola Co., often accused in recent years of helping to fuel rising childhood obesity in the United States, is taking on the problem 10,000 steps at a time.

That's the thrust of “Step With It,” a new program developed by The Coca-Cola Co. in partnership with The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), which encourages middle-school students to take at least 10,000 steps a day. Everyone who participates in the program is given a specially designed “stepometer” to track the number of steps they take. Through activity charts and supplemental materials, participants are also encouraged to engage in a number of fun activities to accumulate steps and meet the goal.

Premiering just months after President Bush's call for all Americans to lead more active lifestyles, the program is expected to reach more than 50 schools in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia during the coming school year. More than 50,000 students and teachers are expected to participate in 2002.

“Coca-Cola has worked all over America for years to develop relationships that help schools meet critical needs. One critical need in education today is more resources to get kids active and keep them physically fit,” says Jeffrey T. Dunn, president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola North America. “We've worked with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education to develop the ‘Step With It!’ program as a fun, practical solution for integrating physical activity into the school day and encouraging students to stride toward a healthier future.”

Coca-Cola's pledge to help students become healthier comes slightly more than a year after the company agreed to start selling water, juices and other nutritional drinks in school vending machines and cafeterias.

“Daily physical activity has declined significantly among today's students and NASPE is working vigilantly with educators, parents and partners like Coca-Cola to develop engaging programs to influence children's activity levels,” says Judith C. Young, Ph.D., executive director of NASPE, the nation's leading association for physical education. “Middle school students should be physically active at least 30 to 60 minutes per day. By demonstrating the benefits and fun of such a simple activity as stepping, Coca-Cola's ‘Step With It’ program helps students see how easy it is to be active on a regular basis.”

As the program evolves, both students and their parents will be provided with additional activities and challenges and unique incentives for meeting fitness goals. Teachers and school administrators are also encouraged to track their daily steps and participate in the activities with students.